Railroad magnate Henry Villard’s stately Madison Avenue compound once housed Le Cirque, where haute-cuisine met high society with air kisses.
Today the tenant is six-year old Gilt, famous for a grilled cheese sandwich inspired by “Gossip Girl.”
That truffled travesty cost $30. Its successor is a $31 bacon burger. The meat belongs to the elite wagyu breed, claims the kitchen. As if. The patty, with the heft of any supermarket sirloin, delivers more gas-grill aroma than beefy flavor. The bun is dry and cold.
Chef Justin Bogle, like his predecessor Christopher Lee, specializes in turning expensive luxury ingredients into cheap, uninteresting food.
Caviar -- even the second-rate, mushy brand of hackleback that Gilt uses -- deserves a neutral palate to show off its delicate maritime essence.
Bogle pairs the roe with scrambled eggs -- a good start -- then obliterates the caviar’s subtleties with “bacon tapioca.” Another night he overcorrects with an amuse, pairing more hackleback with a saline cut of cured salmon. This amounts, here, to using salt to season salt.
Label Rouge, one of the most expensive hens this side of Bresse, suffers indignity by deconstruction.
Strips of breast are poached in olive oil. Tastes like firm tofu. The fowl is topped with a sprinkling of fried skin, resulting in something like Bacos, but with less flavor.
Egg yolk, yet another element of the dish, is slowly steamed into a shiny ball. It chews like a gumdrop. Such errors might be forgiven and forgotten at a tapas joint. They’re magnified at Gilt, where dinner for two can easily exceed $300.
A certain magic is necessary along with superb cooking if high-end prix-fixe dining is going to work. At Eleven Madison Park, the clientele are satisfied that $125 for four courses is a value, given the quality of the cooking and the oodles of freebies.
At Gilt, by contrast, the $89 three-course menu inspires mathematical calculation. You start dividing. You ask yourself: Did that crummy chicken cost $50? Was dessert actually $19?
The amuse on a recent visit was a tiny, forgettable madeleine, little better than those available at Starbucks. It foolishly preceded the bread course, a fine selection that included a heady cheddar and mustard pretzel roll.
Gilt has certain pleasures, chiefly the room and the wines. Tables are arranged in two orderly rows that give everyone the sense of a more elegant time. And everyone drinks well courtesy of Patrick Cappiello, the smart beverage director. He’s given New York one of its best collections of old Madeiras and other oxidized wines.
A $19 Vin Jaune has the caramel nose of a dessert wine, the sea salt sting of an Islay whisky, the bone-dry palate of a fino sherry. For a hint more sugar, try the nutty, single vintage oloroso from 1989 ($13).
Does the sherry pair with hibiscus-wrapped foie gras? Perhaps. Problem is the liver suffers from hypothermia. At Gilt, the foie is so cold it must be cut with a knife.
Nix the Ice
Raw scallops are served on a bed of ice. Remove your shellfish from the portable cooler. Wait five minutes before consuming.
A seasonal salad is ruined by tomatoes that taste freshly picked from the refrigerator. What makes the dish even worse is a maitake mushroom “soil,” a gritty, dehydrated concoction that succeeds in mimicking the texture of dirt.
Order salmon, the delicate filet emboldened by a heady saffron zucchini sauce. Cubes of cobia collapse in oily bliss; dip the fish into a green curry paste for spice, smear it with gelled peanut milk for palate cleansing.
Mangalitsa pork neck is slow cooked in beer and served over beans. It’s the type of one-plate-meal you’d like to savor on a cold autumn day, alternating bites with swigs of good lager.
Too bad Bogle doesn’t allow anything from the set menu to be ordered a la carte, in the bar. I tried. I failed. Even Thomas Keller’s Per Se lets folks purchase individual plates from the tasting menu.
What does Gilt serve in its lounge? That bacon burger. So just linger over respectable chocolate souffle or perhaps some peaches and cream, and enjoy the setting. Rating: * 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Three courses for $89; longer menus at $120, $150.
Sound Level: Moderate, around 70 decibels.
Date Place: The setting will seduce, the food will bore.
Inside Tip: Avoid the chicken.
Special feature: Excellent wine list.
Will I be back? For sherry at the bar.
Gilt is at 455 Madison Avenue. Information: +1-212-891-8100 or http://www.giltnewyork.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)